The Federal Government Just Proposed Changes That Airlines Will Hate and Passengers Will Love

Cancelled Southwest Airlines Co. flights are marked on a departures board at Midway International Airport.
Cancelled Southwest Airlines Co. flights are marked on a departures board at Midway International Airport. Photo: Getty Images.

The Department of Transportation proposed some new rules that would force airlines to give passengers a full refund if a flight is canceled or delayed more than three hours (six for an international flight). They must also give refunds to passengers who cannot travel due to illness, or choose not to travel in order to obey public health guidelines.

There’s a 90-day public comment period for the proposed new rules. So far, comments from the traveling public have been overwhelmingly positive, and there have been few public comments from airlines, although my guess is they’re saying plenty behind the scenes.

Here’s what the new rules would mean to you.

1. No more calling a cancellation a “change.”

On the day before I was scheduled to fly from Seattle to Toronto to speak at the Collision Conference, I received a robocall from my airline, alerting me that my flight had been “changed.” The so-called change was that, rather than two flights with one layover that would get me to Toronto that same evening, I now had three flights with a 27-hour layover that would get me to Toronto a day late. There was no mention of a hotel room during that overnight layover although, depending on the reason for the delay, the airline might have been legally required to offer one.

Existing rules require airlines to issue refunds if a flight is cancelled or significantly delayed. The problem is that the DOT did not define what constituted a “significant” delay, leaving airlines free to apply their own interpretations. The new rules now define that significant delay as three hours for a domestic flight or six hours for an international one–or if an unplanned layover is added to the trip. Passengers also have the right to a refund if changes mean they won’t get the first class, business class, or upgraded seats they paid for.

2. New rules about health could make us all safer.

Right now, airlines–and even some travel insurance–won’t give you a refund if you don’t travel because you are ill, or because you may be contagious, or because of public health guidelines such as a stay-at-home order or changed entry requirements. The new rules require airlines to issue non-expiring credit to anyone who fails to take a flight for any of these reasons. That’s a rule that will also benefit healthy people because, currently, someone who has been exposed to or tested positive for Covid-19 or any other contagious disease risks losing their money if they decide to do the responsible thing and stay home. That creates a financial incentive for contagious people to fly, making airplanes and airports more dangerous for everyone.

3. Bailed-out airlines have additional responsibilities.

That last rule has a special feature for airlines that received government bailouts during the pandemic. They’re obliged to provide refunds, rather than non-expiring credit. I don’t know about you, but this rule appeals to my sense of fairness. Airlines that received taxpayer money because of a public health emergency should give a little of that money back if a public health emergency prevents customers from flying.

When might these rules go into effect? In addition to the 90-day comment period, the DOT is holding a public meeting about the rules August 22 at 10 am Eastern via Zoom (you can register here). Though they haven’t said much publicly so far, airlines are likely to push back. Earlier this summer, in a letter to the DOT, an industry group blamed some of the delays on understaffed Air Traffic Control, although statistics seem to refute that argument.

It’s also worth noting that, while several senators have publicly endorsed these new rules, all of them were Democrats. Despite its popularity, this measure does not appear to have bipartisan support. All of which means that the new rules are not yet a done deal. Stay tuned, or perhaps check out that meeting on the 22nd to find out what happens next.

There’s a growing audience of readers who receive a daily text from me with a self-care or motivational micro-challenge or tip. Often they text me back and we wind up in a conversation. (Interested in joining? Here’s more information and an invitation to an extended free trial.) Many are entrepreneurs or business leaders who seem to do quite a lot of traveling and, like me, they’ve found it to be especially hellish this year. These new rules may not lessen the number of cancelled and delayed flights, or improve the currently abysmal air travel experience. But at least it might get easier to get your money back when things go wrong.